As much as I love finding a great deal on a cheap new electric guitar, it’s just as fun buying a ratty used guitar and fixing it up to play like a dream.
I bought this Squier Affinity Stratocaster for just $80 and I’d easily put it up against a Fender Player Stratocaster that you buy new thanks to the fret work I did on it. (That doesn’t mean it sounds as good, but it plays and feels better.) This is one of the reasons you should eventually learn to do guitar setups. It opens up the whole used guitar market to you!
But even if you’re not at the point of knowing how to do a guitar setup that’s okay. You can find great used guitar deals, pay for a professional setup, and still come out way on top.
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While it’s true that name brand guitars like Gibson or Fender hold their values pretty well that doesn’t mean their prices don’t drop. They simply have a price floor. So if a new Fender Strat is $1300 its floor might be $800. Meaning, you won’t find many on the used market below that price. (I’m spitballing here, the floor is not set in stone and it depends on the model and the brand.) That depreciation of $500 gives you a lot of leeway in deciding what you want to buy. It might end up that a new guitar is the better option for you. But maybe not!
This used guitar buyer’s guide will help you decide.
If you’d rather watch instead of read then check out this 9 minute video about how to buy used electric guitars.
Table of Contents
#1: Relax! Nobody cares about your guitar playing
It’s true. Whoever is selling you the guitar you’re looking at doesn’t care about your guitar playing. They just want their money. They’re not judging your playing so much as they’re judging how quickly they can leave with the most amount of cash possible.
#2: Search the used guitar market before meeting up with the seller
Check Reverb or Craigslist or Sweetwater’s Gear Exchange. Don’t spend time looking up prices while you’re looking at the guitar. Know its value first and spend time making sure it lives up to that value.
BTW, you should be paying 5% – 20% less than the going used guitar prices online. That goes for the Reverb prices in particular because Reverb takes ~9% of the final sale price (including shipping and taxes!) as their fee. Negotiation sounds scary, but it doesn’t have to be. We’ll touch more on negotiation shortly.
#3: Expect the guitar will need a setup
I’ve already mentioned this earlier, but budget ~$100 for a setup if you don’t know how to do one yourself. If you’re lucky you’re buying from someone like me who sets up all the guitars I sell. And sometimes the guitar you’re looking at will be perfectly setup to your liking anyway. But a lot of the time you’ll need to give the guitar a setup. At the very least it’ll probably need to be intonated if that hasn’t been done on the guitar in a while.
#4: Don’t fall in love with the guitar
I know this is difficult and it happens to me too. But falling in love with a guitar messes with your ability to reason and judge. And negotiate! The easiest thing to fall in love with is the color or style while ignoring egregious fret or electronics flaws. There will always be another guitar unless you’re shopping for a true one of a kind.
#5: Handle the guitar in playing position
This seems obvious, but you need to feel the guitar in whatever position you usually play in. Whether that’s sitting down or standing up make sure you’re prepared. If you’re meeting in a parking lot take a small stool or chair with you. And don’t forget a strap. This kinda circles back to #4 don’t fall in love with the guitar because handling the guitar in playing position forces you to better determine its quality.
This isn’t the biggest concern for me because I’ve setup enough guitars to know what I’m looking at and what I’m looking for, but it might be a concern when you’re shopping for a used electric guitar.
#6: Plug it in!
This is another tip that sounds obvious, but don’t trust the seller that the guitar works. This is a non-negotiable unless you’re Bill Gates and money no longer has value to you. I always take a battery powered amp with me when checking out used electric guitars. There is absolutely no other way to figure out if it works or not.
I don’t care as much about the sound here. I’m looking for buzzing or crackling or anything odd with the electronics. For me it’s not the biggest issue if there are electronics problems since I can fix them, but if I find something wrong with the guitar I can get a better deal on the price.
#7: Check every fret for buzzing!
If you don’t play yet and you’re shopping used then you might be causing the buzzing due to poor technique. But otherwise, play a single note on every fret up and down the fretboard to check for buzz. No buzzing? Great! Buzzing? Well you just found another thing to negotiate. Either way you win.
This seems annoying and maybe it is annoying for the seller to wait around while you play every note, but it’s your money. Take your time!
#8: Check for finish flaws, cracks, and dings
Most of these flaws are cosmetic and won’t affect your guitar. Cosmetic flaws are mostly not worth fixing and some people even pay extra for reliced guitars. Cracks in the neck, however, are basically a no go. Run run run! The point of checking for cosmetic flaws is to point them out to the seller and use them for your negotiation.
I personally don’t usually mind cosmetic flaws because it’s only natural for a guitar that gets played to get some bumps and bruises. But look everywhere, on the back top and sides.
#9: Always always always ask for this …
When shopping for a used guitar you need to always ask for a discount. I’ve harped on this a bunch in this article already, but never take the seller’s listed price. Even if they say no to your negotiation it’s still worth asking and then deciding if you want to pay their full price.
If you’re less-than-thrilled with the prospect of asking for a deal on your used guitar then keep it simple. “Would you take $X?” This is not a high stakes negotiation.
#10: This one seems obvious and I’ve failed at it myself
Some time ago I found an immaculate Epiphone 1956 Les Paul Pro with P-90s in Candy Apple Red and I failed to acquire it because: I didn’t take cash, forgot my ATM card’s PIN, got locked out of my ATM card, and by the time I got the cash a few days later the guy had sold it. The guy was offering it for a phenomenal price, including a hardshell case, and I didn’t even want to negotiate. Sometimes a great deal is a great deal. (I did try to get the seller to go down in price, but he wouldn’t budge, which was fair.)
Bonus tip #11: Meet in public, don’t bring cash (but be ready with cash)
This goes along with #10. If you’re afraid of having a lot of cash on you simply don’t bring it. If you decide to buy the guitar just have the seller follow you to an ATM (or go on your own) and get the cash after you’ve negotiated a price. I don’t take cash with me with purchasing a used guitar from a private seller because who knows who I’m meeting up with. This is also why I always try to meet in public places.
Are there any used guitar buying tips you would add to this? Leave them in the comments below.